Thursday, October 10, 2013

Freedom of the Press, President Obama, and the Truth

   By Donna Cole, MediaPolitical Editor at Large

 The Committee to Protect Journalists, a worldwide organization that usually covers things like Third World dictatorships imprisoning reporters, has just released a scathing special report titled "The Obama Administration and the Press" on the relationship between the two. This is not a partisan news organization, so it is not a right wing hit piece. 

 In fairness, I do want to note that this report dives deep into things like the Obama administration going after whistle blowers, secretly using subpoenas to gather media organization's phone records, threatening journalists with prosecution for not revealing sources, and the other similar type incidents. For the sake of this post, I am interested in how journalists feel they have been treated by the Obama administration. Here are some highlight quotes to summarize the report with regard to this treatment.
U.S. President Barack Obama came into office pledging open government, but he has fallen short of his promise. Journalists and transparency advocates say the White House curbs routine disclosure of information and deploys its own media to evade scrutiny by the press.
 “This is the most closed, control freak administration I’ve ever covered,” said David E. Sanger, veteran chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times."
Government should be transparent,” Obama stated on the White House website, as he has repeatedly in presidential directives. “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.” 
But his administration’s actions have too often contradicted Obama’s stated intentions. “Instead,” New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote earlier this year, “it’s turning out to be the administration of unprecedented secrecy and unprecedented attacks on a free press.”
The administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration, when I was one of the editors involved in The Washington Post’s investigation of Watergate. The 30 experienced Washington journalists at a variety of news organizations whom I interviewed for this report could not remember any precedent.
Ellen Weiss, Washington bureau chief for E.W. Scripps newspapers and stations, said “the Obama administration is far worse than the Bush administration” in trying to thwart accountability reporting about government agencies. Among several examples she cited, the Environmental Protection Agency “just wouldn’t talk to us” or release records about environmental policy review panels “filled by people with ties to target companies.”
Obama, who during the 2008 campaign had criticized the “excessive secrecy” of the Bush administration, came into the Oval Office promising an unprecedentedly open government. By the end of his first full day there on January 21, 2009, he had issued directives to government agencies to speed up their responses to Freedom of Information Act requests and to establish “Open Government Initiative” websites with information about their activities and the data they collect.
The government websites turned out to be part of a strategy, honed during Obama’s presidential campaign, to use the Internet to dispense to the public large amounts of favorable information and images generated by his administration, while limiting its exposure to probing by the press.
Veteran political journalists Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen described the administration’s message machine this way on the news website Politico: “One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is government creation of content—photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides—which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forum, not just for campaigning, but governing. They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like.”
“There is no access to the daily business in the Oval Office, who the president meets with, who he gets advice from,” said ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton, who has been covering presidents since Gerald Ford. She said many of Obama’s important meetings with major figures from outside the administration on issues like health care, immigration, or the economy are not even listed on Obama’s public schedule. This makes it more difficult for the news media to inform citizens about how the president makes decisions and who is influencing them.
“In the past,” Compton told me, “we would often be called into the Roosevelt Room at the beginning of meetings to hear the president’s opening remarks and see who’s in the meeting, and then we could talk to some of them outside on the driveway afterward. This president has wiped all that coverage off the map. He’s the least transparent of the seven presidents I’ve covered in terms of how he does his daily business.”
Instead of providing greater access for reporting by knowledgeable members of the press, Compton noted, the Obama White House produces its own short newscast, “West Wing Week,” which it posts on the White House website. “It’s five minutes of their own video and sound from events the press didn’t even know about,” she said.
The Obama administration is using social media “to end run the news media completely,” Frank Sesno (formerly of CNN) at George Washington University told me. “Open dialogue with the public without filters is good, but if used for propaganda and to avoid contact with journalists, it’s a slippery slope.”
“In the Obama administration, there is across-the-board hostility to the media,” said veteran Washington correspondent and author Josh Meyer, who reports for the Atlantic Media national news website Quartz. “They don’t return repeated phone calls and e-mails. They feel entitled to and expect supportive media coverage.”
Reporters and editors said they often get calls from the White House complaining about news content about the administration. “Sometimes their levels of sensitivity amaze me—about something on Twitter or a headline on our website,” said Washington Post Managing Editor Kevin Merida.
Eric Schmitt, national security correspondent of The New York Times, told me: “There’s almost an obligation to control the message the way they did during the campaign. More insidious than the chilling effect of the leaks investigations is the slow roll or stall. People say, ‘I have to get back to you. I have to clear it with public affairs.’”
“The Obama people will spend an hour with you, off the record, arguing about the premise of the story,” said Josh Gerstein, who covers the White House and its information policies for Politico. “If the story is basically one that they don’t want to come out, they won’t even give you the basic facts.”

 Sometimes we forget the First Amendment beside granting freedom of speech grants freedom of the press, this does not only mean that the press has the freedom to publish what they like, it grants that citizens have access to what that press reports. When press freedom is limited, it limits the citizen's ability to understand what their government is doing. I think many Americans take the importance of our press, even with it's mostly liberal bias, for granted. Without it, regular citizens might as well be blind and deaf. The Founding Fathers understood this, and that is why they explicitly spelled out press freedom in the Bill of Rights. It was the first thing they thought of, even before the right to bear arms.

 While I do believe the news media basically gave President Obama a free pass by simply reporting the "good things" and downplayed or ignored the bad in his first term, they have come to learn that they cannot report what they do not know. I think the news media now feels a sense of frustration by the fact they did treat this administration with kid gloves in hopes of more access and the administration abused them by not opening the door wider, they slammed it in their face. The fact that all these veteran journalists would go on the record by name to voice this frustration is telling.

 The New York Times' public editor Margaret Sullivan writing "unprecedented attacks on a free press" and George Washington University director of the School of Media and Public Affairs Frank Sesno using a term like "propaganda" do not come lightly from these highly respected journalists. Media veteran Josh Meyer of Atlantic Media saying the administration feels "entitled to and expect supportive media coverage" with the implication being they stomp their feet like children when they do not get this friendly treatment by their liberal friends is even more telling.

 What these things tell me is that this attitude toward the press comes from the top down. It shows that President Obama is extremely thin skinned and incapable of mentally handling even the most minor bit of criticism. Limiting access also has to make one think that there is something the administration feels needs to remain hidden. Their need to be "control freaks" of the message they want the media to portray adds to this.

 In conclusion, this paints a picture of a very petty and stubborn man (symptoms of being vain and weak minded), who is much more concerned about his own image than doing the hard work of governing. The ultimate story here is the administration covering up the actions of an incompetent president, who has surrounded himself with incompetent yes men (and women) and cronies that are incapable of doing that hard work I spoke of in a positive or constructive way. The news media now know this, and even liberals in that media who have journalistic integrity are going to report it. This is why the Obama administration loathes First Amendment press freedom and works so hard to undermine it. They do not want the American people to know the truth.

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